In Chloe Aridjis’s debut novel, Book of Clouds, Tatiana conducts interviews on post-war Berlin. But she is not permitted to record these conversations. Instead, she must scramble to write accurate notes in real time. I am mildly concerned, upon telephoning the PEN/Faulkner Award-winning Aridjis in mid-November, that I will encounter the same fate. Fortunately, I am granted permission to record our conversation.
Aridjis is a Mexican-American author whose career has spanned the liberal and dark arts: She holds a PhD in nineteenth-century poetry and magic shows from the University of Oxford. She is the author of three novels: Book of Clouds, Asunder, and Sea Monsters. Her collection, Dialogue with a Somnambulist: Stories, Essays, & a Portrait Gallery, was published in November 2021. She lives in London and has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Our conversation on craft and her career coincides with the COP26 summit, where scientists predict imminent catastrophe and nations act insufficiently. This is of particular significance for Aridjis, co-founder of Writers Rebel, an organization committed to addressing the climate emergency. There are varying degrees of participation: many activists write articles, others share concern on social media, and some have even gotten arrested for protesting organizations that deny climate change.
Aridjis notes that her work with Writers Rebel has only deepened her motivation to be more outspoken about the climate emergency. On all of her platforms, Aridjis amplifies our need for collective action. She grounds her novels in environmental awareness. “This is just one way of channeling my anxiety,” Aridjis says, “and often my rage.”
Aridjis’s most profound influence is her father, Homero Aridjis. An environmental activist and former Mexican diplomat, the elder Aridjis is best known for his numerous volumes of poetry and prose. “One of the greatest gifts I have had in my formation was having a father who is a writer,” Chloe says. She emphasizes Homero’s routine: writing in his study early in the morning, pausing for lunch and a walk, and returning to his desk before and after supper.
As an undergraduate at Harvard University in 1993, Chloe translated half of her father’s memoir, El poeta niño, from Spanish to English. El poeta niño recounts Homero’s origins as a poet. It is a story equal parts inspiring and harrowing. At age ten, Homero survived an accidental, self-inflicted gunshot; he turned to literature thereafter. Homero often repressed these memories, until his wife became pregnant with Chloe. Translating the first half of Homero’s memoir was a milestone in Chloe’s writing career. A professor encouraged her to complete the project, and in 2016, The Child Poet was published. “I feel strongly that everything has its moment,” she says of the years between translation, “especially in the creative process and in the creative life.”
For Aridjis, the translation process required an intimate awareness of the text and its subject. This meant inhabiting an era in which she had not lived. In the introduction for The Child Poet, Aridjis writes, “I also had to accept the strangeness of having Mexican characters converse in English, and of reconstructing such a determinedly Mexican village and landscape in another language.”
Of course it is a luxury to have the original author a phone call away. Chloe had many long conversations with her father, each adding complexity to the translation. “It’s strange for me, too, because even though I grew up bilingual, I just live in English much more, and I write in English, and most of my more intellectual conversations are in English,” she says. But ruminating upon every word in Spanish became “a very special experience and threw me back to a past that also, for me, had become a bit distant.”
Before completing The Child Poet, Aridjis published two novels, Book of Clouds and Asunder. Like all Aridjis novels, the construction of place is foundational. Truth be told, I have seldom ventured outside of Massachusetts. Through Aridjis’s work, however, I have witnessed massive fog in Berlin. I have studied museum guards and visitors during solitary hours at the National Gallery in London. And how can I forget the tides at Zipolite, the Beach of the Dead? When crafting a novel, Aridjis says that her drafts emphasize geographical, topographical, and abstract coordinates before plot. Aridjis’s intimate observations of each setting provide fertile ground for her characters to explore.
It is perhaps unsurprising that Aridjis spends countless hours notetaking and reading nonfiction to enhance each novel, though often this information is not utilized. This research, she says, “somehow has dictated the path you take, even if it’s not visible at all by the end.” But equally important is discerning when research is impeding upon a novel. Digressions are worthwhile only if they serve a purpose, Aridjis says. Each of her novels approximates 200 pages, and it is in this relatively short form that Aridjis has developed a unique narrative voice.
Aridjis refined the first-person narration in her debut novel over numerous drafts. Book of Clouds, winner of the Prix du Premier Roman Étranger, is a mesmerizing portrait of Berlin. Tatiana is adrift, much like a cloud. She is relatively new to the city. She is also lonesome, even in the company of others—which is true of each protagonist Aridjis has thus far crafted. Her employer, a historian named Doktor Weiss, obsesses over Berlin’s complicated history. “The challenge was very much finding the right structure for years and years of thinking about Berlin,” Aridjis says. The many wondrous, lengthy sentences are so enveloping that Aridjis’s debut reads like a veteran novelist at work.
The same can be said of Aridjis’s second novel, Asunder. Published by Mariner Books, Asunder follows a security guard named Marie at the National Gallery in London. “I wanted to give them a bit more agency” and a “more dynamic presence in the scenes,” Aridjis notes of her narrators post-Tatiana. In Asunder, this is often achieved during brief encounters, which, as Marie observes, become fodder for lifelong anecdotes. While vacationing in France, for instance, Marie chases a chatelain who has thrown away a family fortune and retreated from society. He swipes at her face and escapes. Marie learns of his death mere days after their encounter. It is through this utter fascination and dynamism that Marie gains her lifelong anecdote.
The protagonist in Aridjis’s latest novel, the PEN/Faulkner Award-winning Sea Monsters, elevates this notion of lifelong anecdotes. Aridjis admits that the novel is semi-autobiographical. Our first-person narrator, seventeen-year-old Luisa, runs away from home and travels to Zipolite with an enigmatic romantic interest named Tomás in search of a troupe of Ukrainian dwarfs, who have reportedly fled their Soviet circus and are traversing through Mexico. I am in the process of revising a semi-autobiographical story, and so I am curious whether Aridjis encountered the same obstructions: primarily, concern over whether the protagonist’s actions will be attributed to the author. “I think many female writers have to deal with this question constantly,” Aridjis says. A conversation with Homero, whose own search for his daughter through the landscapes of Oaxaca informed that of Luisa’s father, helped loosen the constraints she felt while writing the manuscript. “I just had to keep reminding myself that this is fiction,” Aridjis says. “This isn’t memoir. I could use the material as freely as I wanted to.”
It is a tall task to reconcile the factual past from the fictional one, but Sea Monsters is proof that it can be done, with nuance and commitment, philosophy and verve. I keep returning to this indelible (spoiler-laden) line toward the novel’s end: “I imagined Tomás perched on a boulder with his father and Mario, and the dogs dozing beneath a palm nearby, and Gustavo in his lancha, while the merman sat at our table in the bar—in the past twenty-four hours they’d split into separate entities—and the so-called lifeguard in her pale blue hut, on the lookout for drowners and, beyond the hut, the sea-monstered waters I hadn’t properly explored.”
Luisa sure knows how to write.
A few weeks after our conversation, I visit historic Harvard Square in Cambridge. I peruse the landmark bookstores, which were presumably frequented by Aridjis during her Harvard days. On the shelf at Raven Used Books is a copy of Asunder. Aridjis’s forthcoming novel, I recall, is set primarily in London. But I now wonder if an Aridjis novel based in Massachusetts is a possibility.
As an MFA student, I am still refining my subject matter. Most of my recent stories take place in Massachusetts. Like the quintessential Aridjis protagonist, my characters are often lonesome, longing for a fulfillment they cannot quite articulate. I find myself pondering the conscious and unconscious anecdotes concealed in my own characters.
So I ask the million-dollar question: Any advice for aspiring writers? “Develop your own voice,” Aridjis says, “and be brave and try to be as adventurous and bold as possible.” In her formative years, Aridjis received advice from an Irish playwright encouraging her to pursue originality in her prose, especially after finalizing structure and form. She echoes a similar sentiment: “Write something that no one else could write except you.”
Jonathan Smith is a first-year MFA student in fiction at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He is the fiction co-editor for Breakwater Review.